Friday, February 23, 2007

The Apostolic Church

St. John Cassian expresses an unusual belief in one of his conferences where he speaks of the origins of monasticism being the Jerusalem Church. After the initial fervor of the Apostles departed, monks began to separate out from the institutional Church in order to continue praying without ceasing, sharing all things in common, and so on. Whether this narrative could pass muster historically is open to question. However, monks have, from the very earliest cenobitic foundations, looked to the image in Acts 2: 44-47 and 4: 32-35 as the ideal of monastic community life.

The other institution in the Catholic Church that claims the Apostles as their Founding Fathers is, of course, the college of bishops. When Catholics speak of the 'Apostolic Church', we perhaps more often mean to refer to the Apostolic Succession of the episcopacy. Certainly this is the plain sense meant by the Creed when we proclaim the Church to be 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic'.

It is often noted that monasticism got its big start around the end of the age of the martyrs, and that retreat into the desert was a protest against the Church becoming too cozy with the Constantinian arrangement of the Roman Empire. In this way, the monks were seen as 'white martyrs', men and women who died to the world in a figurative sense rather than literal. At the same time, it is interesting to note that it is at this same time that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is being formalized by (ahem) bishops (though some monks like Eutyches were all too eager to participate in these debates). It is no surprise that the bishops, in attempting to delineate the Church's proper teaching authority by linking it to the Apostles, argued for an understanding of 'apostolic' as a literal chain of laying-on-of-hands back to the Twelve. It has the advantage of being tactile and thus historical, like parenthood itself (a point made in a fascinating if subversive book called Throughout Your Generations by the late Nancy Jay).

I am not one to worry about these quirks in history, and I don't doubt that this rhetorical and theological strategy was necessary at the time, even inspired. However, surely the idea of the Apostles as legislators and governors is not the only Biblical one (I know that Fr. Raymond Brown has written on this and been sharply criticized by some readers--though not, I am quick to add, ever by Rome; in any case, I haven't read his book on Biblical bishops). In fact, while Paul clearly understands his role to include some type of government, and while this is obviously part of the drift from Acts to 1 Corinthians to 1 Timothy, we should look closely at why St. Luke chose to privilege a clearly charismatic role for the 'pillars' at Jerusalem. Might not the monastic charism offer something of a balancing corrective to the dangers of an overly rigid institutionalism in the Church? I ask this fully recognizing that monks have been readily co-opted into institutional roles more than once. However, I dare say that monks are never terribly at ease in such situations.

I am preparing an essay, God willing, on St. Benedict's social arrangements in the Rule, and I hope in it to suggest some ideas along these lines. I haven't the slightest idea where this essay will wind up, but among the ideas I would be proposing is that the adjective 'apostolic' should be open for use by the less structured monastic charism (because of its focus on liturgy and prayer) as well as for the necessarily structured episcopal system I would also suggest that there should be better cooperation between the two as being twin developments of the Early Church. Wish me luck and remember me in your prayers....!

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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